Art, engineering and gender

The same principles apply across all creative ventures. So why don’t women follow the money?

This way blindness lies…
I’m in the midst of foot surgeries. As you can imagine, I got bored before I got mobile. My daughter is getting married next month, so it was a good time to do handwork for her wedding. I started with fringing shawls for the distaff side of the bridal party. I could do that with my foot elevated.
The artist is intrepid at making stuff. We simply don’t see lack of experience as a problem. We’re often working in areas we’ve never been in before.
Fringing the shawls was tedious but required little actual skill.
Sewing, however, is something I can do just fine. If there was money in it, I might have been a couturier rather than a painter. From fringing, I moved on to making the ring-bearer a tartan bow-tie from the scraps of his sister’s shawl. Then, since the mess was all out anyway, I started the flower-girl’s dress. All this has been drawing me upright. I work until my foot throbs and then stop.
The bow-tie took a little more experience.
Grace’s dress is meant to be a miniature of the bride’s dress. It has a bouffant skirt with horsehair braid on the top layers of tulle. I like this new use for an old material very much, but it’s hard to scale it to a two-year-old.
A two-year-old cannot go strapless, for engineering and other reasons. A train is also out of the question. And somewhere I need to incorporate a big pink bow, which the bride’s dress doesn’t have. As you can imagine, there is only so far a pattern can take you, and we’ve long passed that point.
Barb Whitten’s paper sneakers. A woman who can make those can make anything.
I copied the first four layers easily enough, but the top layer baffled me. I called artist Barb Whitten for help. She sculpts, so she can think in 3D. She had the layer figured out in minutes. There were eight panels, each with a 90° arc, which meant the skirt encompassed 720° of fabric.
I ran it past another friend, a seamstress and Civil War reenactor. “You realize I had to convert that to 19th century terms, don’t you?” she said. The penny dropped for me. When I saw that wedding gown as a variation on a Victorian gown, the layers made sense.
In the end, it all comes down to craftsmanship.
But to scale it down and cut the pieces freehand required trigonometry. I don’t care if you call it math or you call it “Granny drawing out a pattern on the table.” It’s the same thing. I guessed it, and then I calculated it, and my numbers were right to a quarter of an inch. So I cut it and sewed it.
Women have been doing this work since the dawn of time. It’s not much different from carpentry. It starts with a vision, which is then sketched, measured and constructed.
That’s also how engineering works. So why are women so skittish about entering engineering as a field? Historically, women have participated in science and engineering at much lower rates than men. That’s sad, because those jobs pay well and are in demand.

Maker culture

Knowing how to make things was part of our human birthright. Who stole it?
Little Giant, by Carol L. Douglas. Courtesy Camden Falls Gallery.
I have a to-do list a mile long. One item on it is a muslin mockup of a dress for my granddaughter Grace, who will be the flower girl in her aunt’s wedding in May. I’ll see Grace in Buffalo as I finish my Alabama trip, and I need this mockup to check her measurements. Grace is two years old and growing like a weed. I’ll make the bodice and skirt separately and stitch them together at the last minute, between my workshop in Rye and the wedding.
On Sunday I complained that I’d have to give up my Sunday nap to finish it. “Is there anything you can’t do?” a friend laughed. In truth, I’m only good at things that require spatial skills. That includes math, art and sewing. I can’t cook, although I don’t mind cleaning up afterward.
I learned to sew in 4H. That’s a venerable old organization dedicated to developing citizenship, leadership, and responsibility by teaching life skills. It’s also where I learned basic carpentry, animal husbandry, and how to make a pie crust. The first speech I ever gave was at the County Fair. It was on leavening agents and was called Lovely or Lumpy.

Catskill Farm, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas
Other things I learned at home: how to paint (from my father), how to garden, how to can vegetables, and how to put up hay. My parents were not farmers: my father was a psychologist and my mother a nurse. They were practitioners of the back-to-the-land movement, but everyone of their generation knew how to make and mend things. Today, if we do those things at all, we do them as hobbies or artisanal work.
When my twins were infants, I made them sleepers. It cost me more than they cost ready-made at Kmart. After that, I only sewed for special occasions.
That’s true across most of our economy. It’s cheaper to buy a new toaster than fix the one you have. It’s cheaper to buy baked beans than make them yourself. It’s certainly cheaper to buy a chair than build one. The consequence of this is that our kids have grown up in a world of consumption rather than creation. They have no idea that for humans, creativity is a natural part of life.
Still life, by Carol L. Douglas
Last week, someone sent me this irritating little piece in Smithsonian, which suggests we “leave the cairn-building to the experts.” Ours is certainly a scolding culture, and the goal of all that hectoring is to keep us as passive recipients of others’ experiences.
Why the passion for stacking up rocks on the beach anyway? The human animal is designed for creativity. Our throwaway culture has stolen that from us.
In Maine, there’s still much more of a make-or-mend culture than in other parts of the country. People really do patch up their cars and boots for another go-round. It’s also a more entrepreneurial society than our cosmopolitan centers. I don’t mean that in the Bill Gates sense. Kids who grow up with skilled laborers as parents understand that they don’t need a college degree to be useful, productive, self-supporting members of the community. Kids who grow up with self-employed parents understand there are more ways than a 9-to-5 job to earn a living.
It would be nice if we could add that to our measure of performance when we tote up how well a community does at preparing its kids for the future.

Marriage, learning, and dissatisfaction

Barb tightened down the last strip before we left for the night.

Barb tightened down the last strip before we left for the night.
I spend so much time doing other things that one could be excused for not believing I’m married. In fact, we have been pursuing this fidelity lark for 36 years. There have been long stretches of conventional living, spent raising kids, paying mortgages, and pursuing careers. However, we’ve never been inseparable, even though we prefer to do things together.
When my husband left for band practice on Thursday night, our houseguest asked me if I was going to go with him. That sort of surprised me, because I couldn’t imagine using my time like that. My husband helps me when I need help and vice-versa, but we each have our own work to pursue.
This week, he’s on the road and I’m home in Maine. When that happens, I exercise a vicious double standard. I can camp on the road somewhere and I’ll check in as soon as I have cell service. He’s just going to a Hyatt hotel in a large city, but he’d better call me when he gets there or I’ll squawk until he checks in.
I chose ladder duty. I must be nuts.

I chose ladder duty. I must be nuts.
One thing about not living in my partner’s pocket: when he asks for help, I jump. When he realized—in Freeport—that he’d forgotten something important, I changed my plans and met him to deliver it. Yes, I was doing something equally important at the time, but our special relationship dictates that he takes priority. That’s not a gender-role issue; he would do the same for me.
This meant I had to tell my friend Barb that there was a glitch in our plans to install The Usual Suspects: An Ongoing Investigation, opening on November 11 at Pop Up 265 in Augusta. She’s not feeling well and the delay made her very nervous. Still, we got the main structure in place by the time we ran out of steam, and I have to say, it looks nice.
I was helped by having no expectations or emotional engagement. I was seeing her idea for the first time and it was exciting. She just saw the ways in which it failed to meet her plan. If you’ve ever helped a friend clean, you know exactly what I mean. For you, it’s a lark; for your friend, it’s all wrapped up in emotion and ownership.
The painter's equivalent to an installation is the Big Framing Project for a solo show.

The painter’s equivalent to an installation is the Big Framing Project for a solo show.
My husband has heard that exact same pessimism from me as he’s helped me frame work for shows. It’s almost impossible for artists to see the work of our hands objectively. My daughter Mary told me that every time I finished a painting on my Canadian trip, I announced to her that it wasn’t that good. I’ve learned to not share that initial discontent with the public, but it’s hard to keep it totally to oneself.
We only made one significant error hanging Barb’s panels (our initial spacing of the magnets). That was nothing short of miraculous, since the figures were intended to be evenly spaced around an old room with uneven walls and more than a few obstacles. If you’ve ever wallpapered in an old house, you’ll understand exactly what I mean.
In so many things, the learning lies in the doing. The best a teacher can do is steer you away from pitfalls. Often, your hard-won knowledge is task-specific, never to be used in that form again. But as it joins your sum total of knowledge, it informs you in new ways. Take those young-wife tasks of my misspent youth—wallpapering and sewing. Both helped me as I helped Barb.